I have always had a particular fondness for the emphatic malt character, smoothness and underlying elegance of noble hops in ordinary German biers. I was especially enamored with bocks and that pure expression of malt. Bocks are beers of extraordinary finesse in spite of their fortitude. Brewing them at home can be something of a challenge, and it is critical to follow the bullet points for successful lager brewing outlined in another recent column of mine; short lag time, steady fermentation, diacetyl rest and proper lagering. German beer styles are generally considered fairly rigid in their composition, but bocks offer some room within the styles if you are interested in classic recreations, and are excellent for experimentation.
Bockbier began in Einbeck as top-fermented wheat and barley beer, was later brewed in Bavaria with dark malts and bottom-fermentation, and eventually made stronger by Paulaner monks for Lent fasting to become doppelbock. Maibock and Helles Bock evolved as a strong version of Munich Helles, and Eisbock is rumored to have been serendipitously produced by a feckless journeyman who allowed his precious cargo to freeze. Common among them is an unwavering commitment to juicy malt character, a supportive hop presence, medium-to-full body, and refined, well-rounded flavor. The key to brewing them is a relatively simple malt bill and proper malt selection. Extract brewers have available products made from authentic Pilsner and Munich malts. Judicious use of character malts, such as crystal/caramel, aromatic and chocolate, fills out the palette. Hops, though generally reserved, need not be an afterthought entirely. Subtle hoppy aromatics can greatly enhance dark bock, and a more assertive noble bouquet accents pale bocks exquisitely. As for the yeast, I prefer the malt-enhancing Bavarian and Munich strains (Wyeast 2206, 2308 or Whitelabs 830,838), but Czech and Bohemian Lager yeasts can be used for a crisper finish without compromising malt. Whitelabs WLP833 is a bock-specific strain. California Lager yeast is suitable in a pinch if temperature control is an issue, and Fermentis Saflager 34/70 dried yeast is an excellent no-fuss option. As always, visit the yeast suppliers’ websites for the fermentation and profile specs. For successful fermentation, vigorous aeration is an absolute must, as is a healthy, high cell count yeast starter. Always perform a diacetyl rest, and cold-condition (6 to 8 weeks or more) as best as possible since bocks as much as any beer will benefit proper lagering.
Helles Bock and Maibock (Pale Bock)
As the names suggest, this group of bocks is fairly light-colored and/or brewed for late spring. Color ranges from bright, full gold to light amber. Helles Bock (gold) and Maibock (light amber) can be segregated by color, and brewers will generally follow this rule when naming them. For all grain brewers, blends of Pilsner, Vienna and Munich can be used without any character malt, leaving the body lean, and the malty flavor polished and clean. My favorite combinations are half Pilsner and half Vienna for full gold color and lightly kilned flavor and aroma. Pilsner/Munich and Vienna/Munich blends enrich the color, offer fuller body and greatly enhance spicy, toasted maltiness. SMaSM brewers can use either Pilsner or Vienna malt alone. Mash in the low 150s F, and you’ll have enough body to back up the gravity. Extract brewers are best served with combinations of Pilsner- and Munich-based extract, the latter comprising 10 to 25 percent of the total, augmented with light crystal or Carapils for body. Original gravity should be 1.064 or more. Hop up to 35 IBU, with a firm aromatic addition.